A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard

This is Jacobean tragedy re-imagined for the present day.

I came to that conclusion even before the heroine studied to become an actress and played Ophelia in the most famous of revenge tragedies.  There’s an adjustment to modern taste: the body count at the end isn’t as high as the Jacobeans liked it, and the hero doesn’t wander around with his sister’s heart on a dagger – well, only metaphorically, anyway.

I’ve enormously enjoyed other books by Linda Gillard, such as Emotional Geology and House of Silence, but I think this moves up through several gears.  It’s an impressive and powerful book.But, if I’m honest, I was troubled by doubt as I read it.  I did wonder: Isn’t it all a bit OTT? Then I asked myself, is the story believable?  Do things like this ever happen? And also, being honest, the answer to both questions is,Yes.  More often than most rather pallid novels of modern life – which a friend once summed up as, ‘Unmarried mothers and unmanned lovers’ – would lead you to think.

The characters are fully imagined and vivid.  I could see them, and hear them, and their motivations and emotions are such that you never doubt them.  They could, would, do no other.  And the book is beautifully written, the narrative controlled with great skill as it shifts between decades, constantly giving us new perspective on the characters and events.

But we’re thinner blooded than the Jacobeans, and prefer our drama to be more low-key.  Then we can call it ‘realistic.’  But in fact, real-life is not only more multiple than we think it, it’s frequently more OTT.  I remember as a child being told about a family friend, who was such a disaster magnet that, as catastrophe piled on catastrophe, I started to laugh, and was told off for being unsympathetic.  An acquaintance has a love-life resembling an annexe of Bedlam, and I’ve known people who, if their lives did happen to be calm for a moment, immediately took actions that any cool observer could easily see would create havoc.  The only conclusion is that they craved uproar and couldn’t bear calm.  Drama queens, in fact.

In that sense, the Jacobeans were more realistic than us, and so is ‘A Lifetime Burning’.  In fact, come to think of it, in comparison to the aforementioned real lives, it’s far more credible, perhaps because we know the people from the inside.

But if you want a sweet love-story, tied up with a pink bow, and happy-ever-afters, this isn’t for you. Jacobean tragedies were never sweet, and never ended happily.

I do wonder that the heroine plays Ophelia, instead of taking part in the play which would have supplied the most apposite quote, from the Jacobean tragedy to beat them all:

‘My sister, O my sister! there’s the cause on’t.

Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust,

 Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.’

(Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.)

 Reviewed by Susan Price 

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Linda Gillard

 

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